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The United States has adopted a high-profile approach to pressure Asian governments to improve human rights and move toward democracy. Japan, in contrast, has avoided confronting its Asian neighbors over human rights while balancing between Asia and the West. Japan's reluctance in supporting the U.S., except in the multilateral context, has strengthened the position of Asian nations sanctioned by the West. Japan's approach is explained by its lack of interests and convictions about promoting human rights in Asia, its past aggression in the region, the absence of explicit United States pressure on Japan and the deterrent effect of strong Asian opposition to foreign intervention on human rights.
This article analyzes United States and Japanese approaches to human rights in Asia, focusing on three cases: China, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and Indonesia. This topic is less known than the security and economic relationships between the two nations, but it is no less important. Whether or not the two nations cooperate in promoting human rights in Asia has great implications. With cooperation, they may bring their combined power to bear upon other Asian nations to improve human rights, but if they do not cooperate, there will be weaker pressure for change, and other countries may play Washington and Tokyo off against each other to the detriment of the human rights cause.
On the surface, the United States and Japan are on the same page. For example both are democracies. The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, the foundation of the bilateral relationship, is supposedly based on ideas of democracy and human rights as well as common security interests. The joint declaration on security announced by President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in April 1996 "reaffirmed their commitment to the profound common values that guide our national policies: the maintenance of freedom, the pursuit of democracy, and respect for human rights."
However, although the United States and Japan are both democracies, their views on human rights and democracy, especially in foreign countries, are not the same. The United States has adopted a high-profile approach to pressure Asian governments to improve in human rights and move toward democracy. In contrast, Japan has largely avoided confronting its Asian neighbors and maintained a balancing act in the great divide between Asia and the West over these issues. In fact, Japan's reluctance in supporting the United States, except in the multilateral context, has strengthened the position of Asian nations sanctioned by the United States and the West. Several reasons explain Japan's lack of support for the United States: its lack of self interests and convictions about promoting human rights in Asia, its past aggression in the region, the absence of explicit U.S. pressure on Japan, and the deterrent effect of strong Asian opposition to foreign intervention on human rights.
This article includes five sections. The first two sections examine United States and Japanese human rights policy toward China, Myanmar, and Indonesia. Section Three discusses United States and Japanese human rights policy in the multilateral context. These bilateral and multilateral cases illustrate where Japan and the United States converge or diverge in their human rights policies toward Asia. The fourth section explains why Japan has not actively supported the United States in human rights issues. The last section discusses the implications of different United States and Japanese approaches for the Asia-Pacific region.
The Case of China
The U.S. Approach
U.S. policy toward human rights in China has been inconsistent.(1) Human rights was not an issue between the two nations in the 1970s. China and the United States had common strategic interest against the Soviet Union. In fact, China was an "exception" when the United States government pursued a global human rights policy in the decade. (2) Human rights issues strained the bilateral relationship in the 1980s; President Reagan offered political asylum to a defecting Chinese tennis player in 1983. In the following years, Congress criticized China's family planning program and its policy toward Tibet. Human rights was also a prominent issue during President Bush's visit to Beijing in February 1989. Nevertheless, there was not an explicit United States human rights policy toward China. Bush and his key foreign policy advisors chose not to confront China on human rights issues based on their strategic view about United States relations with China.(3)
After the Tiananmen Incident in June 1989, Congress pressured the administration to sanction China, linking most favored nation (MFN) trading status with China's human rights record. Bush renewed MFN for China in 1990-92, and he was severely criticized for being "soft" on China by Bill Clinton in the presidential election. Once elected, however, Clinton renewed China's MFN in 1993 and delinked human rights and MFN in 1994. The Clinton administration has gradually downplayed human rights in its policy toward China since 1994. While advocating engagement with China, the administration initially pressured China by co-sponsoring resolutions condemning China at the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) and by criticizing China in state department annual reports on human rights. Opposing this engagement policy, some congressional members continued to lobby for sanctions against China and severely constrained the ability of the White House to maintain normal relations with the Chinese government; there were few mutual visits by senior officials. Due to disputes over human rights and other issues such as trade, arms proliferation, and Taiwan, the United States-China relationship drifted to the brink of confrontation in March 1996. China waged large-scale military exercises near Taiwan in response to Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's visit to Cornell University the previous year. Clinton then dispatched two carrier groups to the Taiwan area.
The 1996 near crisis had a great impact on the bilateral relationship in that human rights became less important in the larger scheme of things. For the second term, the Clinton administration saw human rights issues as only one of the U.S. interests in China and the Asia-Pacific region. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright made it clear at a press conference on her first full day in office that she would "tell it like it is" to the Chinese government about human rights, but she stressed that the U.S.-China relationship "cannot be held hostage to any one issue."(4) This argument became the party line for the administration in defending its engagement with China.
To improve bilateral relations, Vice President Al Gore visited Beijing in March 1997, the highest United States official to do so since 1989. President Jiang Zemin paid his first state visit to the United States in October 1997, and Clinton visited China in June 1998. These visits reestablished a regular high-level dialogue between the two nations. On October 24, 1997, Clinton made his first speech exclusively on China. While critical of China's human rights record, Clinton defended his "pragmatic policy of engagement" as "the best way to advance our fundamental interests and values." A few days later, Clinton and Jiang agreed to build a "constructive strategic partnership." With an improved bilateral relationship, Beijing made concessions. Wei Jingsheng was allowed to leave for the U.S. in November 1997, and some U.S. religious leaders were invited to visit China in early 1998. In response, the 1998 U.S. State Department annual report concluded that China had made progress in human rights in the previous year. The Chinese government made another significant step in March 1998 when it decided to sign the International Covenant on Civil, and Political Rights; China had signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in 1997. As a reward, the Clinton administration decided not to seek censure of China at the UNHRC. Then Wang Dan, a student leader in the 1989 Tiananmen movement listed number one on the government's most wanted list, was released from prison on medical parole and sent to the United States on April 19. Stanley Roth, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs called Wang's release "the direct outcome" of the Jiang-Clinton summit last year and "a pre-summit deliverable" before Clinton's June visit. As Roth explains, the U.S. objective is to see a "strong, stable, prosperous and open China," and engagement is a mechanism for achieving this goal.(5)
However, human rights remains an important issue, more so for Congress than the administration, in U.S. policy toward China, although it is no longer the dominant issue. Immediately after Gore's visit, House Speaker Newt Gingrich took a twelve-member congressional delegation to Beijing. He told Chinese leaders that human rights, trade, and defense issues are three legs on which the U.S.-China relationship rests.(6) During his October 24 speech, Clinton stated explicitly that the United States "must and will continue to stand up for human rights, to speak out against their abuse in China or anywhere else in the world." "To do otherwise," he reasoned, "would run counter to everything we stand for as Americans." Consistent with his position, he met Wei Jingsheng in the White House for half an hour in December 1997 despite Beijing's strong objections. Congress will continue to watch how the administration …